Understanding Human Antagonism: A Psychoanalytical Perspective – I

The relative dearth of meaningful contributions to the problem of enmity may appear baffling and almost bizarre in view of the central concern of psychoanalysis with conflict and drive, rivalry and competition, envy and greed, sadism and masochism, aggression and hatred, and even death and destructiveness. Ashoka, a psychoanalyst, opines that we must learn to think of enmity as an entity spanning internal and external reality, the subjective inner world and the objective environment. Enmity is also, however, a bridge between “self” and “otherness,” and hence also, at another level, between inpidual and group phenomena. Here’s the first part of an in-depth research on enemy and enmity, in three parts, exclusively for Different Truths.

Enemy is a ubiquitous designation and perception of our daily life with which we are all familiar. We have learned about the enemies of our nation in school, and we have all had, and still have, our childhood, adolescent, and adult life enemies. Some of us, depending on our age and experience, have known enemies on the battlefield, either first hand or remotely. Our daily politics are full of old and new enemies, real and imagined ones. We all have a good deal to say about enemies and enmity as well-informed citizens and members of society. But do we, as practicing psychoanalysts, have anything of importance to contribute to the understanding of what an enemy is, or how to deal with him or her? Can psychoanalysis tell us anything that is unique and pertinent about this problem? And does it have any course or solution to offer?

The answers to these questions are not easily forthcoming, nor are they particularly encouraging. The peculiar fact is that until recently psychoanalysis has almost entirely avoided direct engagement with these questions. Freud twice addressed the subject of war (1915, 1932). Much later, attention was focused on war again (Fornari, 1966) and in a symposium held in Israel on the “Psychological Bases of War” (Winnik et al., 1973).

Prompted by the threat of the Cold War in the 1980s, the organisation of Psychoanalysts for the Prevention of Nuclear War took a practical and political stance on human self-destructiveness and the meaning of silence in the face of such tendencies (Segal, 1987), and an entire issue of Psychoanalytic Inquiry was devoted to “Aggression in International Relations” (Mack, 1986). At the same time, Volkan (1985, 1986, and 1988) offered a valuable elucidation of the concept of “enemy” to which I shall return. Several attempts by psychoanalysts to address issues raised by the occupation of the West Bank and the Intifada have frankly failed. The general conclusion was that we were entitled to our own opinions as private citizens, but that our psychoanalytic background did not warrant a claim for a special position in these matters.

This relative dearth of meaningful contributions to the problem of enmity may appear baffling and almost bizarre in view of the central concern of psychoanalysis with conflict and drive, rivalry and competition, envy and greed, sadism and masochism, aggression and hatred, and even death and destructiveness. Is it legitimate, however, to reduce questions about enemy and enmity to these considerations? Do these concepts provide us with all the necessary and sufficient tools for dealing with this essential human phenomenon? Enemies are usually encountered in the social sphere. The term designates a person or force that is regarded with hostility or believed to harbour hostile intentions toward us. An enemy may also, however, dwell within us; this is indeed one of the aspects highlighted through psychoanalysis. It seems to me that the heart of the difficulty of understanding and dealing with the notion of an enemy and enmity is that it is one of the most powerful, not to say dangerous, emanations of the conjunction of the inner world and the outer world.

I propose that, difficult as that may be, we must learn to think of enmity as an entity spanning internal and external reality, the subjective inner world and the objective environment. Enmity is also, however, a bridge between “self” and “otherness,” and hence also, at another  level, between inpidual and group phenomena. Talking with an enemy is usually regarded as a significant advance toward resolving conflicts, insofar as it provides an alternative to physical fighting and allows for a symbolic level of discourse. Dialogue with an enemy is often, however, not possible for a long time, and depends on the kind of enemy he or she is perceived to be.

A Palestinian leader has recently said: “There are two kinds of enemies: the enemy you talk to, and the enemy you don’t talk to.” The dramatic handshake of Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, viewed across a shrinking world with hope, disbelief, and astonishment by people far removed from the actual conflict, marked the instantaneous transformation of the enemy one does not talk to into an enemy one talks with. What defines the enemy we talk to, or the one we don’t talk to? How can we turn an enemy we don’t discourse with into one that we do? The answer to these dilemmas seems to me to lie in the dynamics of creativity. It is probably as creative an act as we may ever be able to perform, to be able to regard an enemy as part of us and yet as existing separately and in his or her own right.

Enemy and Enmity

I intend to look at enemy and enmity from the perspectives of inpidual intrapsychic and group relations dynamics. I shall touch on key concepts like boundary, otherness and strangeness, and large-group processes. My remarks are roughly divided into three areas. First, I shall examine enmity within the psychoanalytic and the group-process frames of reference.  Second, I shall focus on certain characteristics and derivatives of these approaches, reviewing different levels of discourse with an enemy. Last, and perhaps most important, I shall touch on the most difficult question: does our examination of this subject point to or offer guidelines for potential solutions?

Psychoanalysis has always had to contend with the tension between an interactive-interpersonal and an internal-subjective perspective. The preference in psychoanalysis, however, has usually been for elucidating and interpreting the intrapsychic realm. The level the theory speaks of is that of internal fields of forces, perhaps best described as internal relationships and relatedness. It has far less to say about real social and political relationships. What seems to emerge from a review of the intrapsychic level is that we can distinguish between two enemy categories which differ in terms of psychic structure, internal organization, and developmental level. The earlier, more primitive kind is the preoedipal enemy. The relationship with this enemy is governed by splitting and projective identification; it is marked by polarisation and uncompromised evil. In Volkan’s terms (1986), this enemy is the best suitable target for the externalisation of all our bad parts. Ego and superego levels mobilised are earlier and more primitive; they involve concreteness and lack of readiness for symbolic treatment and discourse, and readily tend toward direct expressions of drives and drive derivatives, like oral rage and cannibalistic wishes and fantasies. These levels of relatedness render this an enemy with whom we cannot have a discourse. Talking, or more correctly, verbal exchange, may occur, but it is in the service of the direct and literal expression and satisfaction of aggressive and destructive wishes and impulses. Words become weapons and are used to attack, invade, dominate, and eviscerate the enemy

The more sophisticated and advanced enemy is the oedipal enemy, with whom we can have a talking discourse. The internal relatedness to the oedipal enemy is marked by the complexity that characterises post ambivalent relationships, with negative feelings of hatred and rivalry, but also with positive feelings of love, admiration, identification, and emulation. The relationship with the oedipal enemy draws on more advanced ego and superego organizations. Defense mechanisms used are also more mature; they involve repression and more sophisticated levels of psychological operations, like symbolisation and abstraction. Stern’s (1985) description of the “verbal self” as the highest self-organisation achieved in early development is relevant here. The higher level signified by verbal development, abstract thought, and symbolisation has, however, causes and implications that are inherent to the level of verbal discourse, yet go far beyond the mere fact of verbalisation. They suggest a third frame of reference, a shared cultural order and a type of “otherness,” on which I shall expand below.

Intrapsychic Enemy

The intrapsychic enemy becomes a realistic enemy when it manifests itself in social reality. The main arena in which this takes place is that of relationships within and between groups. My remarks here are based on Bion’s (1961) work in groups and on numerous observations of these processes within Tavistock Group Relations Conferences, which study group processes in the tradition of Bion and others.

One notion that comes out of this work is that of being positioned “on the boundary.” This notion needs to be expanded and explicated. Boundaries occupy a central position in psychoanalytic ego-psychology and in systemic models of group and organisational behaviour. Boundaries involve notions of strength and permeability as well as rigidity and elasticity. Above all, there is usually some question about the degree of clarity with which they are set up and defined. Boundaries are also, however, meeting grounds where different sides can and do come in contact with one another. Boundaries sometimes allow, or include, a certain amount of “no-man’s- land” which is not clearly under the jurisdiction of any party.

Often enough such no-man’s- land is precisely the territory in which encounters and testing of limits take place without the danger and risk of all-out war with full responsibility and consequences. In psychoanalytic terms, this suggests the transitional space and transitional phenomena described by Winnicott (1971). I have pointed out that boundaries may be drawn sharply between self and object, contributing to their definition and separateness; they may also, however, encircle and envelop self and object, as in states of merger and fusion. I have described these differing deployments of boundaries in relation to underlying dimensions of experiencing self and object as Doing or as Being (Erlich, 1990, 1993).

It is extremely helpful to think of boundaries not as well-defined, razor thin lines, which cannot support or contain any life, but as grey areas and no man’s territories, in which a great deal of actual and significant living takes place. This usually happens through some variety of “play”— in the sense that it does not lead immediately to real consequences in well-defined areas of living. The concept of a moratorium is an important instance of such playful extension of boundaries, in this case of temporal and role boundaries, in the transition from late adolescence to adulthood. Such a boundary region, or better yet frontier zone, has much to offer in terms of elasticity and permeability. Very often, it can give birth to and support what is creative, novel, and psychologically pertinent. Not only positive creative aspects of life, however, have their roots here; negative creations, such as enmity, are also fundamentally linked to the psychological transactions and creations at the boundary. It is this domain and the kind of life that exists within and close to it that I have in mind when I speak of the enemy as created and coming to life on the boundary. If we consider for a moment the dynamics that take place in a large group, we find that enmity occupies a pivotal role. A perennial and centrally important manoeuvre in the large group is to designate an enemy. One way this takes place is by splitting the large group into subgroups and splinter systems. Such fragmenting of the whole seems so natural, and occurs so frequently and swiftly, that it is difficult to discern and track. This process of passiveness is the equivalent of the intrapsychic splitting of the whole bad object in order to assimilate and subjugate it.

©Ashoka Jahnvi Prasad

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Also see other parts of this Cover Story:

Understanding Human Antagonism: A Psychoanalytical Perspective – III

Understanding Human Antagonism: A Psychoanalytical Perspective – II

Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad is a physician /psychiatrist holding doctorates in pharmacology, history and philosophy plus a higher doctorate. He is also a qualified barrister and geneticist. He is a regular columnist in several newspapers, has published over 100 books and has been described by the Cambridge News as the 'most educationally qualified in the world'.
Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

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